Arguments against workers’ cooperatives: the Myth of Mondragon Part 2

mondragon-humanity-at-workIn Part one of this post I looked at the argument that the most famous example of workers’ cooperative ownership involves the division of the working class within the cooperative so that technicians and especially mangers have different views and interests from manual workers.  This is reflected in their relative enthusiasm for the cooperative form.

In fact there is no evidence or argument presented in the book under review that there is a fundamental difference of interest between managers and workers arising from class position within the relations of production, although some evidence that there is differing levels of enthusiasm.

I argued in response that the evidence for the view that there is weaker engagement of workers in the cooperative involves writing off the views of the higher paid workers, some of whom might be called managers, but that there is nevertheless some weak evidence of an unhealthy lack of participation by manual workers in decision making.  In Marx’s support for cooperative production he noted that:

“The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour.”

The evidence of the book is that some of the most political workers have organised to struggle against some of these shortcomings and have succeeded.  This response of the workers is one that should be supported rather than dismiss workers ownership outright.  To anticipate the whole argument – if workers should not take up experiments in running their own workplace how are they ever to be expected to – in one momentous event called revolution – ever to take over running the whole of society and creation of their own state to protect it?

The actions of these politicised workers show the role that a workers’ party could play in advancing the socialist project within cooperative production.

The argument of the book (The Myth of Mondragon) however is not only that the real workers cooperative, as opposed to the mythical one, divides workers within the cooperative but more especially has resulted in, and was meant to result in, the division of the working class in the local area and within the Basque country more generally.

The argument has already been referred to but it is made up of several components.  The first is that the cooperative has imposed middle-class values on workers by making them, in effect, small property owners.  In this they faithfully reflect the motives and views of the original sponsor of the cooperative in Mondragon, Catholic priest José Mariá Arizmendiarrieta, who was heavily influenced by Catholic social teaching and who sought to ameliorate class struggle through education and co-operativism.  Hence the significance noted in the first post of relatively more co-operators viewing themselves as middle class than workers in a private sector firm.

This fed into the views of Basque nationalism, particularly the bourgeois PNV (Partido Nacionalista Vasco) but also the radical nationalism of ETA, which, like the Irish versions of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalism, liked to look on the Basque people as inherently egalitarian and predisposed to small property ownership which united the nation against the outside enemy, harking back to an original society free of class contradictions that preceded foreign rule.  For the radical nationalists the cooperative could simultaneously be supported by emphasising Basque unity and workers participation, so demonstrating the compatibility of nationalism and socialism while opposing any role for foreign multinationals.

The cooperative was thus a conscious political instrument to divide the working class, which was traditionally militant and socialist.  This division is also exhibited in resentment by some workers in Mondragon expressed in remarks that ‘los cooperativistas’ “have it easy”.

A third element of the argument is that it is no coincidence that the cooperative was set up under the fascist regime of General Franco since both co-operativism and fascism share a desire to negate class struggle.  Cooperatives were also supported by Mussolini and the Mondragon cooperative came into existence only because more militant forms of working class action were illegal and repressed.

The author of the book refers to the first criticisms of Mondragon by ETA which accused the Mondragon cooperative of dividing the local working class between co-operators and the rest because the cooperative workers did not want to engage in strikes with their fellow workers.

What is to be made of these arguments?

The argument that the cooperative workers have bought into the illusion that they are middle class is not strongly supported by the evidence in the book but if they did they would not be alone because such identification is not uncommon amongst many better off sections of the working class.  That through the cooperative, through their ownership of the firm, there is some basis for such a view is reflected in the quote from Marx above, that the workers make themselves their own capitalist.  However, this has not prevented workers expressing solidarity with their fellow workers or being sensitive to inequality within the workplace. Objectively their position is a transitional transcendence of capitalism but a very partial one, the more partial the more isolated it is, and cannot provide on its own guaranteed grounds for the development of socialist class consciousness.

This needs to be fought for by a working class party.  The class struggle is not abolished by cooperatives but is a means to pursue it and a battle ground on which to wage it.  The question is whether this battle involves growth and development of the cooperative form or not?  The answer for Marx was clear:

“. . . however excellent in principle and however useful in practice, co-operative labour, if kept within the narrow circle of the casual efforts of private workmen, will never be able to arrest the growth in geometrical progression of monopoly, to free the masses, nor even to perceptibly lighten the burden of their miseries. . . To save the industrious masses, co-operative labour ought to be developed to national dimensions, and, consequently, to be fostered by national means.”

That the Mondragon cooperative was sponsored by a Catholic priest should no more be a reason for condemning it than should the Bolsheviks have condemned the demonstration led by the Russian Orthodox priest Father Gapon, which sparked the revolution in Russia in 1905.

That cooperatives have existed under fascist regimes does not demonstrate that they are essentially instruments of fascism any more than it demonstrates that fascism is the essential expression of cooperatives.  In Italy Mussolini’s fascist thugs terrorised and burnt cooperatives before making them subordinate to the fascist regime.  In Spain the dictatorship of Franco could allow isolated cooperatives to the extent that they did not follow the path, recommended by Max to the First International above, that they expand and combine to develop nationally and indeed internationally.

The example of fascist sponsorship or acquiescence is but the most extreme warning to workers that the potential for their independent initiative should not be compromised by seeking the sponsorship of the capitalist state, no matter how democratic its form.  The revolutionary content of workers cooperatives, whatever its workers might believe at any particular point in time, is that they represent the independent actions of a class that is taking measures that undermines one pillar of existing society, which is the monopoly of the means of production in the hands of a separate class of capitalists.

The need to expand is not limited to national growth but is practical demonstration that workers ownership can only succeed internationally.  So far from supporting any form of nationalism it is practical vindication of the need for workers to reject national solutions, and not just at some future point in time but now.  Workers’ ownership should be extended internationally not tied to some view that workers are part of a purely national development of a specific country and its particular state, especially when this state is inevitably a capitalist one.  Workers of different nationalities united by ownership of the one enterprise with different workplaces in different countries would be powerful demonstration of unity of interest and practical international solidarity.

The first criticisms of ETA reflect a common view on the Left, which appears to be endorsed by the author of the book, which is that the struggle of trade unions against employers is a better model of class struggle than the development of workers’ cooperatives.  Hence the criticism that the cooperative workers often did not go on strike, even though the author quotes a local militant expressing the view that this is perfectly understandable.

Who would they be striking against?  If the purpose is not to influence or pressurise their employer, which is themselves, then it would be part of a movement to demonstrate support for particular demands and the strength of feeling and organisation behind those demands.  In that case this is what demonstrations and meetings are for.

In themselves trade unions do not exist to undermine capitalism but to enforce its operation by acting on one side of the supply and demand of labour power which sets its price.  It enforces the laws by which capitalism regulates workers alienation from ownership of the means of production, it does not in itself threaten it.  Strikes can be seen as a simple refusal to sell labour power for a period rather than an existential threat to the wages system itself.

Would Left critics criticise strikes that demanded workers ownership of their firms?  Or would this be seen as a demand not actually to be realised but one only useful in so far as it leads more or less quickly to revolution?  In which case what would they say if some workers, but not all, actually succeeded – fuggedaboutthat and let’s start all over again?

None of these points negate the argument that trade unions might not be helpful for cooperative workers in order to assist them in both elaborating alternative plans for their coop or to protect them against the actions of management. Particular interests of workers are not guaranteed by workers ownership but we should not believe that trade unions are somehow superior forms of workers’ organisation and representation than the organs of the cooperative.

The latter will be composed of all the workers while the trade union will usually not.  Trade unions are not inherently more democratic as the current bureaucratised organisations show.  Nevertheless for particular workers or in particular circumstances they may be useful in representing the interests of some workers even against the majority.  These workers need not be more backward but could be more advanced and we should not necessarily believe such organisation is required because the unions are needed to represent workers in the same way Lenin claimed they were required as protection against their own bureaucratised state.

The book recalls a significant strike in the Mondragon cooperative in 1974 sparked by job regradings and the system for their evaluation.  The strike only lasted one day, following a walk-out by some of the workforce, but twenty-four leaders were fired pending a vote of a general assembly of the workers.  When this assembly convened the workers voted to uphold the sackings.  A campaign was launched to let them return which eventually, in 1978, led to their being readmitted.

The strike and its aftermath exposed the political assumptions behind the participants on both sides with cooperative managers claiming the strikers were anti-Basque while some of the strikers went on to join a Maoist-oriented organisation.  Some Left organisations then went on to develop left-wing critiques of cooperativism.

The messiness of such events gives a headache to those who like their politics simple, with workers on one side and bosses on the other.  Simple trade unionism seems to provide for that although simple trade unionism does not go beyond capitalism, much of it is purely sectional and some of it is even reactionary.

Despite the authors apparent approval of this model of class struggle she notes that, contrary to her overall argument, that the “most important factor influencing the local labour movement” was the Moncloa Pact between the Left parties, including the Spanish Communist Party, the trade unions syndicates and the Spanish Government.  This accepted changes to the law which reduced workers’ rights below what had been provided under the Franco dictatorship.

So trade unions are not an anti-dote to workers’ failure to make islands of socialism out of workers’ cooperatives, which can hardly be expected because they haven’t been able to do that for themselves.  The answer is not to see workers cooperatives as alternatives to class struggle but as part of it.  Once again the question is whether the answer lies in expansion of cooperatives or their rejection.

The answer for Marx was that they should be developed.  This is elaborated on in the two posts recommended by Boffy in his comment on the first of these posts on Mondragon.

On their own a cooperative can easily be a capitalist enterprise owned by its workers in which, as Marx says, the workers become their own capitalist.  What makes them a powerful weapon of transformation is their development and growth into a social and economic alternative to capitalism through cooperation between them and their living example of workers’ power.

As isolated coops they are indeed subject to the economic and political subordination of the capitalist economy and its state.  If content to be providers of jobs and income only to their members there is clearly no wider ambition.  However as a cooperative movement determined to grow and develop in other areas of production, both to secure its own future and share its benefits with others, and to provide other cooperative services such as education, health and other socials services, it inevitably poses itself as an alternative to capitalist production and the capitalist state’s provision of services.  It becomes a political alternative because its growth, as an economic sector driven by the needs of its workers and their customers and not by profit, is a real, practical and living example of an alternative economic and social system.

The development of the cooperative sector to become such a political rival and alternative is at least partly dependent on Marxists fighting for such a perspective within cooperatives and for cooperatives to propagandise their alternative.  In Marx’s remarks to the First International he praises workers’ cooperatives and calls for the workers to pursue just such a task:

(a) We acknowledge the co-operative movement as one of the transforming forces of the present society based upon class antagonism. Its great merit is to practically show, that the present pauperising, and despotic system of the subordination of labour to capital can be superseded by the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers.

(b) Restricted, however, to the dwarfish forms into which individual wages slaves can elaborate it by their private efforts, the co-operative system will never transform capitalist society. to convert social production into one large and harmonious system of free and co-operative labour, general social changes are wanted, changes of the general conditions of society, never to be realised save by the transfer of the organised forces of society, viz., the state power, from capitalists and landlords to the producers themselves.

(c) We recommend to the working men to embark in co-operative production rather than in co-operative stores. The latter touch but the surface of the present economical system, the former attacks its groundwork.

(d) We recommend to all co-operative societies to convert one part of their joint income into a fund for propagating their principles by example as well as by precept, in other words, by promoting the establishment by teaching and preaching.

Let’s see how such a perspective might address another frequent criticism of Mondragon and other cooperative enterprises.  This is that the cooperative further divides the working class through its large use of temporary contract labour, as much as one third of a particular workforce in Mondragon.  These workers are not members of the cooperative with all the rights of membership and obviously have much less job security.  In these circumstances the workers are not their own capitalist, since they do not have membership of the cooperative, and are exploited not by themselves but by others – the Mondragon cooperative.

If it was the case that these workers were indeed needlessly kept on purely temporary contracts it would be open to the most class conscious workers within the cooperative to campaign and seek a vote on their award of cooperative membership.

On the other hand let us assume that the cooperative workforce does not accept this because it views these workers as an unfortunate but necessary buffer against periodic reductions in demand for their products, such fluctuations being an inevitable feature of capitalism.  Then it would not be possible to give these workers cooperative membership because the cooperative could not guarantee their continued employment should demand for the products they make fall.  This might be despite the fact that the Mondragon and other cooperatives seek to move workers around the wider cooperative group in order to protect the employment of their members.

The second class status of the workers could lead to resentment within the wider working class and support for the view that the cooperative workers are indeed a privileged layer that is separate from the rest of the workers.

What is the answer to this problem?

The answer is not obviously to give these workers the same rights as the rest of the cooperative workers for this solves no problem.  If demand does suffer a drop or there is some other crisis in the cooperative, for example if some customer does not pay up because it has gone out of business, the cooperative can choose to keep all its workers on the payroll and then either weather the storm or as a result go out of business altogether.

If the latter is the foreseeable result of the event then keeping all the workers on is a mistake, not only for those workers who could otherwise save their job but for the cause of worker owned production in general.  The whole cooperative would cease to exist when part of it at least could be saved.  If all the workers, including temporary workers, have equal rights how is it to be decided who will lose their job?

If this problem is to be minimised the cooperative should seek to be part of a wider federation of cooperatives so that downturns in economic activity in one area can be made up by possible growth in employment in another.  The larger the cooperative movement the more scope there is to diversify risk and build up reserves to protect its members during crises.  Were this to happen then cooperative production would be seen by workers in the capitalist sector as a real progressive alternative to the insecurity of the capitalist sector in which workers jobs are more or less quickly sacrificed for the profits of the big wigs.

The answer then is not to reject cooperative production but to seek its growth.

In the meantime there are steps that could be taken to defend the rights and position of temporary workers.  The first might be to ensure adequate union organisation and representation for them within the cooperative.  The second might be for these temporary workers to form or be part of a ‘temporary workers’ cooperative themselves, which has a membership across a number of firms that might not all have to be cooperative enterprises. (Just such an idea is proposed by Boffy in the posts referred to above).

In this way the temporary workers would not have to simply rely on the actions of others but would, through their own cooperative employment agency, take some control of their employment situation including building up reserves for bad periods, providing social insurance or job seeking support, including retraining facilities.  Such a cooperative could be the sponsor of a political campaign in defence of the rights of temporary contract workers.

To return to the main argument: the promotion of cooperative production is not an alternative to class struggle but a part of it.  It is the solution to a problem that many of those who believe in socialist revolution believe does not exist.  This problem is that the majority of the working class do not see any need for their own ownership and control of production.  They not only do not see the need for it but even if they did they have no experience of it, nor any particular, in fact any, view of how it would seek to achieve its aims.

The view that running society is something that can be done more or less easily on the morrow of the revolution does not ask why workers would carry out this revolution in the first place or why they would be fit to run things after it.  What is it they would seek to do differently and how could it be done?

Instead the process of revolution, as normally argued, envisages workers rebelling against attacks on their living standards and democratic rights through some sort of politicised general strike which develops into workers councils.  These will then take over from the capitalist state.  What is missing from this is any understanding of socialist revolution as a change in the mode of production.  From one based on profit to one based on use.  From one based on capitalist ownership of the means of production to one based on workers ownership.

We are asked in this scenario to believe that the whole working class will in one fit of more or less violent rebellion against repression etc, seek and know how to implement its own ownership of production but that such strivings should not be encouraged or expressed before the revolution in the growth of workers cooperatives.

There is no need for workers to learn about how to organise production within their own factories and offices.  No need to learn how to manage trade and production between other workplaces and customers.  No need to master how the economy works the better to make changes that benefit fellow workers and fellow consumers.  No need to learn how to compile economic plans within the firm, within the wider cooperative movement and the wider economy.

No need to learn by practical experience the role of the capitalist state in protecting capitalist property against rival workers’ owned property; to learn the need to build their own structures that will defend their plans to develop production as they see fit, and no need to seek to defend their own cooperative property through the overthrow of the capitalist state.

The argument is not whether cooperative production plays a role in the move to socialism but what role that is, over what period of time such production can realistically be expected to develop and what the role is of Marxists in politically fighting for and defending the growth of workers property.

Back to part 1

One thought on “Arguments against workers’ cooperatives: the Myth of Mondragon Part 2

  1. Brilliant! I couldn’t have summarised the ideas I have been developing myself over the last 15 or so years any better. One other point I would emphasise is in relation to the role of a worker owned social insurance scheme, and of a worker owned co-operative employment agency (the latter is essentially what Robert Owen proposed with the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, and what the IWW’s call for “One Big Union” amounts to, i.e. a monopoly over the supply of labour-power). That is that such means also facilitate the undermining of the idea of production for profit rather than need, in a way that even production co-operatives cannot.

    If as Marx suggests, and as I have elaborated, a portion of the profits of a Co-operative Federation were used to build such a Social Insurance Fund (it would ultimately be preferable for workers to be able to scrap payments into state run N.I. insurance schemes and have control over those funds themselves), and if a portion of profits is set aside for investment in periods of downturn, these funds can be used counter-cyclically within the worker-owned sector of the economy – itself showing that concern is more to ensure stability for workers in employment than to make short run profits by over-expansion. It means that during these periods, not only can funds be used for re-training, for repairing and rebuilding worker-owned means of production etc., but workers who are “unemployed”, can be employed in socially useful work for their fellow workers.

    This might be done on the basis of simply finding alternative employment, but realistically, the point of a social insurance scheme is a recognition that at times it is simply not practical – and this would be true in a socialist economy to an extent too – to provide everyone with permanent, full-time employment, or to divide all the available work on the basis of a sliding scale of hours (technical considerations might make the latter not practical or efficient for worker-owned enterprises anymore than for capitalist enterprises. To this extent, again its necessary as Trotsky put it to “learn to think” and not simply remain tied to mantras and dogma that apply in relation to capitalist property but do not in relation to worker-owned property – your point about why co-operative workers would want to take strike action against themselves is an example of that.

    So, it would be necessary to reject the mantra about “workfare” in this respect. As an argument against such schemes run by the capitalist state to get workers to work for capital in return for benefits rather than wages, it is of course entirely correct, but it is not in relation to a worker-owned and controlled social insurance scheme. Marx and Lenin certainly believed that the principle “He who does not work neither shall he eat” was fundamental to socialist morality. The contrary attitudes have crept into sections of the labour movement because of the influence of radical Liberalism, which seeks only to ameliorate workers conditions under Capitalism by means of such welfarism.

    It is quite reasonable to expect that if useful work is available, for example cleaning up workers districts, helping out with community restoration, and even things such as helping out in TU offices, or the work of the Workers Party, for just part of the day, then in return for payments from their own insurance scheme, workers would be employed for a few hours of the day to do it. After all we say nothing about workers doing TU and LP and other such political work for free already! But, the point of this work is that it shows again that the purpose of the work being done is not to create a profit – which is the case with capitalist workfare – but to meet real social needs of workers themselves, as well as to ensure that the basic need of workers – to perform useful work as an essential element of what makes us human – can be undertaken on a more noble basis than simply to make profits. A worker owned social insurance scheme, and co-operative employment agency could do this, in a way that Capitalism cannot, precisely because the new value that such workers create has to be only equal to the value of their labour-power, or equal to the payment made to them, i.e. it does not have to produce a surplus value.

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